Hong Kong’s buffalo provide a divisive link to the region’s past
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 7:25 EST
A short journey from the skyscrapers at the hectic centre of Hong Kong, water buffaloes lumber over jungle-clad hills and through secluded villages where they once worked as farm animals.
But after years roaming through the same areas, some have been moved to a nature reserve in a far-flung corner of the territory. Shifting even a few of the beasts has proved divisive in a city whose eye on the future has meant a steady erosion of its past.
For some residents and day-trippers, many of them expatriates, the act of moving the animals damages an idyllic setting on Lantau island, a short ferry ride from Hong Kong’s main island and an escape from the supercrowded city.
But it is a different story for those who regard the animals as a nuisance, blocking traffic and defecating wherever they please, with little practical use now that agriculture plays such a small part in the high-tech territory.
There are roughly 130 water buffaloes in two main herds in Hong Kong, most of them on Lantau, according to government data.
Many visitors do not expect to find feral buffaloes at all in a city with one of the highest population densities in the world.
But 75 percent of Hong Kong is countryside, with hiking trails, sandy beaches and national parks that are home to monkeys, snakes and wild boar.
Government officials and a protection group have in recent years moved four buffaloes, from Lantau and elsewhere to the WWF-run Mai Po nature reserve in northwest Hong Kong. Such moves are usually prompted by complaints from the public.
The latest addition, Mai Bo, arrived in September. The WWF says the animals are proving a great help at the 380-hectare (940-acre) reserve where they graze wetlands, which in turn helps to attract rare birds.
“We found that buffalo are actually very good at managing the habitats, at keeping short vegetation… which provides very good habitat for the birds that we get here,” said John Allcock, WWF-Hong Kong’s head of habitat management and monitoring at Mai Po.
He hopes to take in more buffaloes but distances the WWF from the debate that moving the animals has sparked in a city where many are concerned with the loss of heritage that has come as a consequence of its development.
“I think of them as something that adds character to Lantau,” said David Blecken, a 32-year-old British journalist who lives on Hong Kong’s main island.
“I think Hong Kong sometimes lacks a connection with nature, so it’s quite nice to see animals of any kind in Hong Kong.”
Some Lantau residents are also against moving them. “This is their home. They make this place beautiful for the community. Without them, we do not have this beautiful scenery,” said Ho Loy, chair of the Lantau Buffalo Association.
Other villagers disagree, and some even view the hulking beasts as dangerous even if attacks are rare.
Such fears were heightened in March 2011 when a man walking with his young daughter on a Lantau beach was attacked by a buffalo and suffered leg injuries.
“If they get into parks, it’s dangerous for the children playing there,” said shopkeeper Sarah Wong.
“There are a lot of buffaloes on the beaches too and we’re afraid when we swim because they look fierce.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Scientists ‘on the threshold’ of major dark matter discovery
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 9:23 EST
For decades, the strange substance called dark matter has teased physicists, challenging conventional notions of the cosmos.
Today, though, scientists believe that with the help of multi-billion-dollar tools, they are closer than ever to piercing the mystery — and the first clues may be unveiled just weeks from now.
“We are so excited because we believe we are on the threshold of a major discovery,” said Michael Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, at an annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Dark matter throws down the gauntlet to the so-called Standard Model of physics.
Elegant and useful for identifying the stable of particles and forces that regulate our daily life, the Standard Model only tells part of the cosmic story.
For one thing, it does not explain gravity, although we know how to measure gravity and exploit it for our needs.
And the Standard Model has been found to account for only around four or five percent of the stuff in the Universe.
The rest is dark matter, making up 23 percent, and dark energy, an enigmatic force that appears to drive the expansion of the Universe, which accounts for around 72 or 73 percent.
“On the cosmology side we now understand that this mysterious dark matter holds together our galaxy and the rest of the Universe,” said Turner.
“And the tantalizing thing on the cosmology side is that we have an airtight case that the dark matter is made of something new… there is no particle in the Standard Model that can account for dark matter.”
The dark matter theory was born 80 years ago when Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky discovered that there was not enough mass in observable stars or galaxies to allow the force of gravity to hold them together.
According to some theorists, dark matter is fleetingly formed by exotic particles called WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) that, as their name implies, have only weak interactions with the visible matter identified under the Standard Model.
But, again, this could only be part of the picture.
“The real question is why dark matter has six times the energy that is in ordinary matter,” said Lisa Randall of Harvard University.
“It could be 10 trillions times bigger… This is an intriguing sign that there is maybe some other interaction we can detect.”
High-powered instruments track cosmic particles
To track these phantom particles, physicists rely on several methods and tools.
One is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which captures gamma rays coming from collisions of dark matter particles.
The first results will be published in two to three weeks, according to Samuel Ting, a Nobel laureate and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who is the mastermind of the two-billion-dollar project.
Ting declined to give details, only suggesting that these highly anticipated results would give humans a better idea about the nature of dark matter.
Another tool used by the scientists is the South Pole Neutrino Observatory, which tracks subatomic particles known as neutrinos, which, according to physicists, are created when dark matter passes through the Sun and interacts with protons.
Another big weapon is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, the biggest particle smasher in the world.
Its power, they insist, could allow them to break-up electrons, quarks or neutrinos to uncover dark matter.
Last July, LHC physicists announced they had discovered a particle believed to be the Higgs boson, which confers mass. The Higgs was the key missing piece in the Standard Model.
“The dark matter particles are very heavy. It is one of the reasons we have made the LHC, not only to look for the Higgs boson,” said Maria Spiropulu, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
In the USA...
The sickness of what is called the Republican Party in America ...
Barrasso: Tax Increases Are Off the Table to Prevent Sequester
It seems Republicans are ready to die on their sword of protecting tax cuts for the rich and are going to do their best to blame President Obama for their unwillingness to negotiate on anything in good faith. They've been wanting to take a pound of flesh from the working class by slashing our social safety nets and it looks like they might use this sequester to finally get their way: GOP Eager For The Sequester To Go Into Effect So They Can Blame Obama For Its Devastating Consequences:
With the sequester deadline looming just two weeks away, Republicans have adopted the public posture of cheerleading for the anticipated spending reductions to social programs, while preparing to blame President Obama for their devastating impact on middle class Americans and national security.
Republicans have yet to offer a proposal that would offset the cuts in the 113th Congress and have categorically rejected the Senate’s balanced approach of higher revenues and spending cuts. Instead they’re sitting on their hands until the March 1 deadline, informing Obama that they will not act to head off the automatic reductions. [...]
Pressed by Crowley on the consequences of the across-the-board cuts, Barrasso initially dismissed their impact before blaming Obama for any deleterious effects. “I believe the president has a lot of authority that he can decide how this works, and, yeah, he can make it very uncomfortable, which i think would be a mistake on the part of the president, but when you take a look at the total dollars there are better ways to do this, but the cuts are going to occur,” he said.
Here's more from them on the damage the cuts would do: How The Sequester’s Budget Cuts Will Devastate Already-Battered Programs:
Federal spending is scheduled to reach historic lows thanks to the Budget Control Act, which placed caps on spending as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. Non-defense spending is already 14 percent lower than it has been at any time in the last half-century, and it could go even lower if the so-called “sequester,” a series of automatic budget cuts that will begin to take effect at the beginning of March, is allowed to occur.
The drop in domestic spending has already devastated many programs on which Americans depend. But on March 1, those cuts will get even deeper when the first $85 billion of sequester cuts take effect.
That will have a substantial impact on food safety, education, law enforcement, and safety net programs, according to estimates from Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. And if the sequester is left in place for the full year, it will cut $1.5 trillion and those effects will only get worse: Read on...
Here's a reminder from Greg Sargent on the right's decision to use the sequester as "leverage" against President Obama: We all agree that spending cuts hurt the economy. Right? Right.:
Thrush very well be right that people won’t take the right message from the contraction. But in a rational world, what should be glaringly obvious is that the belief that this gives the party “leverage” highlights how absurdly incoherent the GOP message about the economy has become. (Read Steve Benen for all the other problems here.)
The economic contraction was driven largely by a steep drop in defense spending. As Ezra Klein details, this shows that “government is hurting the recovery” by “spending and investing too little.” As Ezra notes, “government spending and investment have, at all levels, been contractionary since 2010.”
Yet Republicans are responding to the news of the economic contraction by suggesting it validates their view that we need to further cut spending to help the economy. Hence their claimed “leverage” in the coming battle over the sequestered cuts, half of which is to defense spending. Republicans are actively using the sequester to force Dems to agree to avert it by offsetting it entirely with other deep cuts to social programs, and no new revenues from the wealthy. In response to the contraction, John Boehner tweeted out this hashtag:
In other words, the contraction confirms that we need more spending cuts.
You could chalk this up as a philosophical difference between the two parties — Republicans think spending cuts help the economy; Democrats think spending cuts hurt the economy — except for one small problem: Republicans themselves previously said the sequestered spending cuts threatened severe damage to the economy, back before they had decided to use it as leverage to get other cuts they wanted.
Back in September, when Republicans were eager to avert the sequester’s defense cuts, Eric Cantor warned that the sequestered cuts would make unemployment “soar,” adding that this risked “setting back any progress the economy has made.” The RNC predicted that sequestered cuts would drive Virginia’s economy “into a recession.” On the stump, Paul Ryan repeatedly said the cuts threatened massive job loss.
Now that Republicans are trying to use the threat of the sequester to extract other spending cuts, they have backed off this rhetoric, since it would reveal their case to be untenable: If the sequestered spending cuts threaten dire harm to the economy, wouldn’t replacing them with other cuts do the same? At the same time, they are now claiming that the economic contraction validates their push for these new cuts.
But Republicans are unambiguously on the record previously saying that the sequestered cuts do threaten to damage the economy — which is to say, they have admitted spending cuts will imperil the recovery. Which is to say that they have confirmed what yesterday’s news of the economic contraction reminds us. And so even if it’s true that the public won’t necessarily perceive the contraction in these terms, those of us who are writing about this should note clearly that the contraction does, in fact, validate Obama’s claim that we should not offset the sequester only with deep and damaging spending cuts. Republicans themselves have essentially confirmed it.
Here's transcript of Crowley and Barrasso's exchange on CNN:
CROWLEY: I don't know if you heard Senator Schumer at the top of the show. He was talking about sequestration.
He expressed the belief either on the eve of or sometime in the first two or three weeks of sequestration, if it goes into effect, those big across-the-board budget cuts, that Republicans indeed will come to the middle and agree to essentially what the Democrats have proposed, which is some cuts in farm programs as well as closing the loopholes for oil and gas companies, as well as taxing more -- the so-called Buffett tax, that no millionaire should pay less than 30 percent.
He said that your current position, Republicans' current position is untenable, given what sequestration will do.
Do you think that Republicans will go ahead and agree to some kind of cuts, and perhaps an increase in revenue for those making $1 million or more?
BARRASSO: No. Let me be very clear, and I would say this to the president as I say it to you.
These spending cuts are going to go through on March 1st. The -- their taxes are off the table. I've read the Democrat proposal that even Chuck Schumer said is just a chess piece, so the American people need to know tax cuts are off the table, and the Republican Party is not in any way going to trade spending cuts for a tax increase.
CROWLEY: So you have heard all these dire warnings, so you think Republicans are willing to walk off this particular cliff and say, no, we are not going to raise taxes in order to stop these across-the- board cuts, which will dig deeply into the Defense budget, among other things?
BARRASSO: I think there are much better ways to do these budget cuts, and I welcome that sort of discussion with the president, but the cuts are going to occur.
We're talking about 2.5 percent of what we spend this year, and this is just the first year of 10 years of cuts, so you have to be realistic about this. Families all across the country, Candy, have had their budgets cut by larger than that as a result of the economic downturn.
CROWLEY: So you don't believe all these dire warnings that, you know, it's going to -- it's going to hollow out the military, that it's going to interfere with getting onto planes, it's going stop food inspection, you don't believe any of that?
BARRASSO: Well, I believe the president has a lot of authority that he can decide where this -- how this works, and, yes, he can make it very uncomfortable, which I think would be a mistake on the part of the president. But when you take a look at the total dollars, there are better ways to do this, but the cuts are going to occur.
Diagnosing the 'GDP problem'
By Steve Benen
Thu Jan 31, 2013 7:59 AM EST
One of top Politico stories of the day tells readers that, in the wake of yesterday's economic news, President Obama has a "GDP problem." After noting that the drop in economic growth was "largely due to a drop in government spending," the article adds:
Nonetheless, the politics are unambiguously terrible for Barack Obama ... and it gave an adrenal jolt to the a GOP messaging establishment left supine by the Mitt Romney mirage and recent soul-searchy infighting.
Politico's report added that Democrats "will try to spin" the news, but the party's "narrative" is "not very convincing" and burdened by "weakness."
It's almost as if facts, evidence, reason, and a cursory understanding of economic policy no longer matters at all. In reality, the economy shrank a little in the last quarter because of spending cuts, but the party demanding more spending cuts has suddenly received "an adrenal jolt" -- the Republican National Committee seemed inexplicably giddy after the GDP report was released -- even though it's now blisteringly obvious their agenda would undermine economic growth.
Any why are those who've been proven wrong acting like they've been proven right? Apparently it has something to do with whether D.C. media types are "convinced" by your "narratives."
For those who still take policy seriously, and still believe a sustained economic recovery is possible, the facts are readily available: the people who seemed happiest yesterday by discouraging economic news have it backwards, and are pursuing policies that would make the problem worse, not better.
That's not based on opinions and speculation; that's based on the report the misguided souls kept touting yesterday without reading.
It's really not that complicated.
[T]he government is hurting the recovery, and badly. But it's not because it's spending too much, or because of concerns over future policy. It's because government, at all levels, is spending and investing too little. Despite the stimulus and various other policies we've passed to help the recovery, and despite the large deficits the government has been running, government spending and investment have, at all levels, been contractionary since 2010.
The new numbers the Bureau of Economic Analysis released on fourth-quarter economic growth have received considerable attention for the clear damage that falling government spending did to the economy. According to the BEA, "government consumption expenditures and gross investment" knocked 1.33 percentage points off the total change in economic growth. If government spending had just been neutral -- that is to say, if it had neither contracted nor expanded -- the economy would have grown by 1.23 percentage points rather than shrunk by 0.1 percentage points. [...]
So yes, the government is hurting the recovery. But it's not because of deficits or uncertainty, or at least, it's hard to find evidence for either theory. The real, provable damage the government has done to economic growth in recent years has been in cutting back on spending and investment since 2010.
I can't speak to whether the Beltway is moved by the "narrative," but all available evidence makes clear that we're fighting for a recovery with one arm tied behind our back -- and we've been doing so for a couple of years now, with unsatisfying results. Ideally, we'd see the public sector and private sector adding jobs, injecting capital into the economy, and cultivating a strong recovery.
But we're not. Through much of 2010 and 2011, we saw state and local governments pursue austerity measures, slashing public investments and laying off public-sector workers -- most notably school teachers. But as 2012 drew to a close, we saw similar cuts in federal spending, and the result was yesterday's report showing an economy that's shrinking for the first time since 2009.
This is incredibly easy to fix -- policymakers can invest in the economy, lower unemployment, and inject capital into the system. But that's not going to happen, in part because gerrymandered district lines brought us a Republican majority in the House, and in part because the discourse is driven by folks who hardly bat an eye when policymakers who've been proven wrong act like they're received "an adrenal jolt" by bad news that further undermines their credibility.
How The Sequester’s Budget Cuts Will Devastate Already-Battered Programs
By Travis Waldron on Feb 8, 2013 at 10:30 am
Federal spending is scheduled to reach historic lows thanks to the Budget Control Act, which placed caps on spending as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. Non-defense spending is already 14 percent lower than it has been at any time in the last half-century, and it could go even lower if the so-called “sequester,” a series of automatic budget cuts that will begin to take effect at the beginning of March, is allowed to occur.
The drop in domestic spending has already devastated many programs on which Americans depend. But on March 1, those cuts will get even deeper when the first $85 billion of sequester cuts take effect.
That will have a substantial impact on food safety, education, law enforcement, and safety net programs, according to estimates from Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. And if the sequester is left in place for the full year, it will cut $1.5 trillion and those effects will only get worse:
Food safety: The Food and Drug Administration is already facing serious cuts, jeopardizing its ability to safely inspect foreign food imports. Under the sequester, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be forced to furlough thousands of workers for weeks at a time, causing food processors to shut down. That would cost the industry billions of dollars while further limiting food inspections. Other studies estimate that there would be 600 fewer food inspectors at meat and poultry plants.
Aviation safety: The first round of cuts would force the Federal Aviation Administration to furlough 10 percent of its staff each day, reducing the number of air traffic controllers and regulators on the job at any given time. That could mean the loss of 1,200 air traffic controllers over the next year if the sequester remains in place.
Women, Infants, and Children programs: WIC, which helps low-income women provide for their children up to age 5, is already facing significant reductions under budget caps that could kick 970,000 women out of the program. The first round of the sequester would cut $353 million, meaning 600,000 women and their children would lose access.
Early Childhood Education: As many as 70,000 children would be cut from Head Start and Early Head Start under the first round of cuts, while 30,000 parents would lose access to child care services. Head Start, early childhood education, and child care for working parents provide huge benefits to families and their children. One study in California found that Head Start results in $9 of benefits for every dollar spent on the program.
Disaster relief: The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget would be cut by $1 billion right as the spring storm season begins, jeopardizing aid for families, states and localities, and businesses that are devastated by natural disasters. Even the aid package that just passed for victims of Hurricane Sandy would face $1.89 billion in reductions, according to the report.
Health research: The National Institutes of Health would lose $1.6 billion in funding under the initial round of cuts, putting medical research and jobs at risk. Over the year, NIH would lose $12.5 billion, according to research estimates, a hit that could cost the U.S. $860 billion in lost economic growth over the next nine years while resulting in the loss of 500,000 jobs.
Law enforcement: The first cuts would reduce the Coast Guard’s air and sea operations by 25 percent, while 1,000 federal law enforcement officials and 1,500 corrections officers would face furloughs. Border patrol and customs agents would be furloughed for two weeks, resulting in a reduction of 5,000 officers and agents at points of entry to the United States. Over the year, there would be a 25 percent reduction in border patrol agents, according to estimates.
Mali: what we must get right before world's attention falls elsewhere
Mali needs aid donors to focus on resilience, a clear mission for peacekeepers, and peace-building at grassroots in the north
Tuesday 19 February 2013 07.00 GMT
Mali, long on the international backburner, is now having its moment in prime-time. Media from around the world have breathlessly covered the lightning offensive by French and Malian military forces and the liberation of the legendary city of Timbuktu. But the limelight is already beginning to fade, obscuring that the hardest task is yet to come. Restoring a degree of normality in northern Mali will mean dealing with a humanitarian emergency and building peace amid weak governance and worsening ethnic tensions.
These challenges have deep roots. Their underlying drivers will not be resolved – and in the near term may actually be aggravated – by military action. As planning moves ahead for a UN peacekeeping mission and a resumption of aid, there must be a concerted, careful effort to address these issues.
The first priority must be to reopen access to the north of the country. The offensive has pushed rebels out of Mali's major northern towns but has worsened access. Until January, the north depended on two principal lifelines: food supply in commercial markets and humanitarian aid. Both remain largely blocked due to restrictions on movement, the closure of trade routes with Algeria and insecurity. Mercy Corps and other organisations have warned that the population is rapidly running through food reserves and is already beginning to experience serious hunger; lives will be threatened if access is not restored soon.
We must also rethink the role of aid in Mali. The humanitarian crisis persists because of what William Garvelink, former US ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has called a "resilience deficit". As serious droughts and economic shocks hit more frequently, communities have less time to recover; they lose more ground with each subsequent shock.
Mercy Corps has seen how this puts people into a spiral of vulnerability – a cycle accelerated by the conflict. Traditional humanitarian aid can treat the symptoms, but not the root causes, of this problem. Traditional development aid as practised in Mali for decades has not proved equal to this challenge.
A different approach is needed. Donors including the UK (pdf) and US governments are piloting resilience-oriented aid, which mixes elements of the relief and development toolkits to help communities anticipate and adapt to shocks. Such initiatives are making headway under similar circumstances in the Horn of Africa. Yet most aid to Mali remains locked in humanitarian or development silos. UK, US and other donors must shift gears to focus on resilience, starting now.
Even the most effective, thoughtful aid strategy will not make progress without peace and security. The planned UN peacekeeping force will be given the task of restoring security, but there are major questions about its mission and capacity.
Effective peacekeeping relies on a clear mission. In Mali, the UN is unlikely to have any clear peace agreement to enforce. Instead, it will focus on stabilisation, akin to efforts in Somalia and Congo that have been plagued by problems. Stabilisation ultimately depends on effective governance; yet Mali's government is struggling to reconstitute itself, particularly in the north.
In Somalia and Congo, peacekeepers have struggled to pursue effective political objectives in the face of such gaping governance gaps. Those forces have had a hard time maintaining effective co-ordination with humanitarian agencies, often trying to co-opt the humanitarians' role rather than protect it. These lessons must be integrated into planning for Mali. The UN should ensure that the force's security objectives are guided by realistic political and governance analysis, and must define appropriate parameters for civil-military interaction.
Equally concerning is the lack of significant peacekeeping experience among many of the countries contributing troops to the Afisma mission in Mali – notably Chad, a major contributor with desert combat experience but little on the peacekeeping side. Press reports that the more experienced Nigerian contingent has been asking for food from local communities do not inspire confidence either.
The resolution that the UN passed in December authorising the mission contained important provisions on protection of civilians, and training troops on peacekeeping practices and international humanitarian law. The unexpectedly rapid deployment of the forces will make this difficult, but the UN must ensure this training happens soon. Likewise, the UN must build a strong human rights monitoring mechanism to complement the force.
Finally, efforts at high-level political dialogue between Mali's interim government and northern groups must be paired with local peace-building initiatives across the north. Local leaders in northern Mali have called for restraint but recriminations against some ethnic groups have already begun. This reflects not just the recent conflict but deeper-seated grievances going back years.
Against this backdrop, grassroots violence will polarise communities and make political resolution much more difficult. It could also undermine resilience and wipe out aid investments. Major donors cannot afford to neglect this grassroots peace-building, which will be critical both for political progress and effective aid.
The challenges facing Mali are immense. Getting these first steps right will pay dividends in the long term; getting them wrong could endanger the entire international effort.
• Jeremy Konyndyk is director of policy and advocacy for Mercy Corps. He visited Mali in January on a fact-finding assignment. Mercy Corps began relief work in northern Mali in mid-2012
February 18, 2013
Obama Could Revisit Arming Syria Rebels as Assad Holds Firm
By MARK LANDLER and MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — When President Obama rebuffed four of his top national security officials who wanted to arm the rebels in Syria last fall, he put an end to a months of debate over how aggressively Washington should respond to the strife there that has now left nearly 70,000 dead.
But the decision also left the White House with no clear strategy to resolve a crisis that has bedeviled it since a popular uprising erupted against President Bashar al-Assad almost two years ago. Despite an American program of nonlethal assistance to the opponents of the Syrian government and $365 million in humanitarian aid, Mr. Obama appears to be running out of ways to speed Mr. Assad’s exit.
With conditions continuing to deteriorate, officials could reopen the debate over providing weapons to select members of the resistance in an effort to break the impasse in Syria. The question is whether a wary Mr. Obama, surrounded by a new national security team, would come to a different conclusion.
“This is not a closed decision,” a senior administration official said. “As the situation evolves, as our confidence increases, we might revisit it.”
Mr. Obama’s decision not to provide arms when the proposal was broached before the November election, officials said, was driven by his reluctance to get drawn into a proxy war and by his fear that the weapons would end up in unreliable hands, where they could be used against civilians or Israeli and American interests.
As the United States struggles to formulate a policy, however, Mr. Assad has given no sign that he is ready to yield power, and the Syrian resistance has been adamant that it will not negotiate a transition in which he has a role.
Even if Mr. Assad was overthrown, the convulsion could fragment Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines, each faction supported by competing outside powers, said Paul Salem, who runs the Middle East office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Syria,” he said, “is in the process not of transitioning but disintegrating.”
The debate over Syria is not limited to the United States. On Monday, European Union foreign ministers decided against easing an arms moratorium despite objections by Britain. In what appeared to be a compromise, the ministers agreed to “provide greater nonlethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians,” according to the European Union’s Web site.
As the Syria conflict has unfolded, the State Department has funneled $50 million of nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, including satellite telephones, radios, broadcasting equipment, computers, survival equipment and related training. An FM radio network is to connect broadcasting operations in several Syrian cities in the next several days. The State Department has also helped train local councils in areas freed from the Syrian government’s control.
But the State Department does not provide nonlethal assistance to armed rebel factions. This has greatly limited the influence the United States has with armed groups that are likely to control much of Syria if Mr. Assad is ousted.
“The odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria’s course for the foreseeable future,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former senior State Department official and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky.”
Because units of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army have captured prisoners and detained criminals in the areas they control, Mr. Hof said, it is essential that either the United States or an ally train rebel staff officers in judicial procedures and make them sensitive to human rights concerns.
Though the White House has focused on the risks of providing weapons, other nations have had no such reservations. Russia has continued to provide arms and financial support to the Assad government. Iran has supplied the government with weapons and paramilitary Quds Force advisers. Hezbollah has sent militants to Syria to help Mr. Assad’s forces. On the other side, antigovernment Qaeda-affiliated fighters have been receiving financial aid and other support from their backers in the Middle East.
The arming plan that was considered last year originated with David H. Petraeus, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and was supported by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The goal was to create allies in Syria that the United States could work with during the conflict and if Mr. Assad was removed from power. Each had a reason for supporting it.
Mr. Petraeus had experience as a general in Iraq training Iraqi fighters and had long worried that militants traveling through Syria to join Al Qaeda in Iraq might one day reverse course and challenge the Assad government. Mrs. Clinton signed on to the initiative after frustration that the Russians had walked away from a transition plan she thought was agreed on in June.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta supported the plan, which offered a way to influence the military situation inside Syria without involving American forces. So did Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calculating that it was important to bring the conflict to a close before the Syrian state collapsed and there was nothing to hand over to Mr. Assad’s successor.
“I thought if there were a way to resolve the military situation more quickly, it would work to the benefit not only of the Syrian people but also us,” General Dempsey told reporters en route to Afghanistan this month, though he acknowledged that his support was “conceptual” and that “enormous complexities remained.”
But the president, who had campaigned on the theme that “the tide of war” was receding, was more skeptical, fearing that such a move would, in effect, draw the United States into a proxy war against the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian backers, with uncertain results. His wariness was reinforced, officials said, by his closest advisers, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, both of whom advised against it.
Also skeptical, officials said, was Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations. Her opposition was noteworthy, given that she had pushed for military intervention in Libya.
“In a situation as chaotic as Syria’s,” said an official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “you don’t know where weapons might end up, and what the consequences are if those weapons are used against civilians, against Israel, against American interests.”
To avoid any risk of Israeli aircraft being targeted if weapons fell into the wrong hands, the plan would not have provided rebels with shoulder-fired missiles. But that meant that the operation would be less effective against Mr. Assad’s forces.
After Mr. Petraeus resigned because of an extramarital affair and Mrs. Clinton was sidelined with a concussion, the issue was shelved. Mr. Donilon convened few meetings of top officials after the election, which also limited the chance of revisiting the question.
A big question is whether the makeup of Mr. Obama’s new team would discourage the likelihood of a major policy shift. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that he plans to advance ideas on how to change the situation on his first trip later this month, ideas that appear to include eliciting more cooperation from the Kremlin.
But it remains to be seen if the Russians will soften their position. In a phone conversation on Sunday, Mr. Kerry and Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, discussed how the United States and Russia might encourage a political transition in Syria and said they would try to meet in the coming weeks, said Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman.
Other ideas under consideration include how State Department funds might be used to expand support to the Syrian opposition.
Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee for defense secretary, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, has expressed reluctance, dating back to the Iraq war, to become entangled in foreign conflicts.
Mr. Petraeus’s likely replacement at the C.I.A., John O. Brennan, is a 25-year veteran of the agency. One official said Mr. Brennan’s background suggested he might be more focused on bolstering its clandestine intelligence-gathering capabilities instead of its paramilitary-style operations.
Against all that, however, is the grim reality that Mr. Assad seems no closer to leaving than he did months ago. For all of Mr. Obama’s deep reservations, the White House says it is taking no options off the table, with officials pointing out that over time, it is learning more about the rebel factions.
“We have consistently looked at all elements of our Syria policy, including what we can and should supply to the opposition,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
In a small corner of Syria, rebels attempt to reconcile
Rebels and pro-government militias have agreed to stop shooting in Talkalakh, thanks to the efforts of Sheikh Habib
Jonathan Steele in Talkalakh
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 February 2013 20.36 GMT
Sheikh Habib sits with the smartly dressed mayor of Talkalakh and other officials of this small Syrian city, drinking coffee and eating chocolates beneath a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad.
Five minutes later, we have climbed into the sheikh's white 4x4, crossed a railway line, been waved past an army checkpoint, driven 300 yards up a street of badly ruined shops and houses, and are shaking hands with a swarthy, bearded figure in a woolly hat and black leather jacket who emerges from behind a wall. Our new host is Abu Oday, the commander of the armed opposition in this town in the western corner of Syria, and what we are witnessing is one of the most extraordinary facets of the country's catastrophic civil war: the birth pangs of a truce that has restored calm to one small area after almost two years of violence.
Abu Oday carries no gun, nor do any of the dozen men who stand around us curiously as plastic chairs are drawn up. By agreement they no longer show their weapons while, for its part, the Syrian army has ended the regular hail of mortar fire that terrorised this side of Talkalakh.
The architect of the change is Sheikh Habib or, to give him his full name, Mohammed Habib Fendi. Barely mentioned in Syria's official media, he prefers to keep a low profile even though he seems a rare hero in the country's brutal conflict. He heads a Sunni tribe in al-Raqqa, a city on the Euphrates in north-eastern Syria, and is a regular preacher at Friday prayers. But his political work began after he took part in one of many delegations of local people whom Assad started inviting to Damascus soon after the uprising began in 2011.
The aim was to discuss their grievances and see whether "reconciliation" could be used by tribal and community leaders as a way to end the mounting street protests. The policy was an implicit admission that the ruling Ba'ath party had become an empty shell, more associated with corruption and security control than with providing services, let alone justice, fairly.
As protesters moved from peaceful demonstrations to armed resistance following the government's mass arrests in 2011 and the heavy use of force last year, reconciliation made little headway. The arrival of foreign jihadis, the Islamisation of large parts of the opposition, and the onset of sectarian clashes created new tensions and made compromise harder.
An alternative to permanent war
But now, as the war's death toll mounts with no prospect of an early end, reconciliation is making a hesitant comeback. The bleakness of the nation's outlook, indeed of the country's very survival, makes it seem a better alternative than permanent war.
"I am religious and I have an idea – perhaps it's crazy – of leadership via love", said Habib.
Talkalakh is the place where he has achieved his best results so far: close to the Lebanese border, most of the town's 30,000 people used to farm or make their living from smuggling. Made up of Sunnis and Alawites, the minority from whom the Assad family comes, the town and surrounding villages are a microcosm of the conflict ravaging the country.
The governor of Homs province strongly supports the sheikh's ceasefire efforts, but the army is leery. The local commanding officer (who declined to give his name) first claimed it was too dangerous for us to cross the frontline. When the sheikh insisted, the colonel urged him to tell us that the rebel leader did not want to be interviewed and so there was little point in our going. In between these falsehoods he declared 90% of the town's population supported President Assad and the British government was making a mistake by supporting jihadi fundamentalists in Syria because they would turn against Britain in the end.
Sheikh Habib had explained to us that Talkalakh's reconciliation agreement had several stages. First, there would be a ceasefire. Then the rebels, all of whom were Sunnis, would stop patrolling with their weapons while the pro-government militias – the Alawite shabiha – would stay away from Sunni villages. , Abu Oday, the rebel leader, would collect his men's weapons and secure them, in return for which the shabiha would be replaced by proper troops. Finally, the rebels would surrender their weapons and the army would withdraw from the area.
Abu Oday turned out to be eager to talk to me. "Ask anything you like", he said, as Sheikh Habib and I sat down with him in a half-finished building. The petrol station opposite had been destroyed and several houses across the square bore mortar scars, but there was no sign that the area was under siege. Shops were selling fruit and vegetables and women and children went in to buy them with no sign of the fear that must have reigned before the ceasefire.
No jihadis here
"I used to work in real estate in Saudi Arabia, but came back here when the revolution started," Abu Oday said. Anticipating my question, he went on: "I'm not religious. I only have a beard because we have no time to shave. There are no foreign fighters with us. We are all local, 100%. This is a Sunni part of town and we are all Sunnis.
"We started here with peaceful demonstrations for justice. It was only when the regime responded with force that we started to call for freedom and the end of the regime. That's what we still want. When they attacked us and made arrests we had to defend ourselves", he went on. The regime's claims that there were hardline Islamists in rebel ranks were only a ploy to blacken the rebels' image, he said.
In spite of the ceasefire the sheikh had organised, – here Abu Odeh nodded appreciatively at the sheikh who nodded back – people on this side of town were afraid to cross the railway line to the other side in case they were detained.
And the ceasefire was being violated, he said. "We only control about three streets. Up there" – he pointed over the ruined petrol pumps to the mouth of a side-street – "there are snipers. The day before yesterday, in broad daylight, a lawyer was up on his roof feeding his pigeons. He was shot in the neck. The sheikh helped to get him safe passage to hospital.
"We have agreed a ceasefire, but we're still not ready to trust the government," he said.
He could not say when they would move to the next stage of the agreement and was not yet convinced the government did not want to drive Sunnis out of the town. His views made it clear that confidence-building in Talkalakh still has a long way to go.
February 18, 2013
Yemen, Hailed as Model, Struggles for Stability
By ROBERT F. WORTH
SANA, Yemen — The tents at the heart of this city’s Change Square are now almost empty of protesters, and the canvas flaps quietly in the breeze. Two years after the start of its democratic uprising, Yemen has a new president and is in the midst of a lumbering transition process that has been held up by the Obama administration as a model for resolving Syria’s bloody civil war.
In some ways, the transition here has achieved a relative calm, while Egypt and Syria are in violent upheaval. Yemen, having pulled back from the brink of war in 2011, is slowly embarking on a national dialogue aimed at reconciling its rancorous political factions, under the watchful eyes of Arab and Western monitors.
Yet many Yemenis now doubt that anything substantial has changed and fear that the much-hailed “Yemen model” is enshrining a fragile stability at a time when decisive action is needed.
Beyond the capital, the country is more rudderless than ever. The south is in the grip of a surging independence movement, and sectarian tensions are rising dangerously in the north. The economy is a shambles. All of the same troublesome political players — including the still-powerful former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh — remain, and the new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has struggled to assert himself against them.
“I have never felt the anxiety I feel now,” said Sami Ghalib, a political analyst and former newspaper editor. “There was always geographical conflict, but now it is turning ideological. There are assassinations taking place everywhere. And at the helm, we have a leader who behaves like Saleh but doesn’t even have his political skills.”
Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Hadi is a virtual recluse who rarely speaks in public and has failed to offer a clear vision for addressing any of the crises afflicting the country. His fierce praise for the American drone-strike program, which is unpopular here, has further eroded his small base of public support. He is widely said to fear for his life and has appointed many family members and old allies to security positions.
Some progress has been made. A military campaign last year recaptured several southern towns from the jihadist militants who had controlled them for more than a year. But most of the fighters seem to have melted back into the population, and in the wake of the military’s withdrawal, large areas of the south remain a checkerboard of mysterious armed groups with no government presence.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate has adopted a new tactic: a ruthless campaign of assassinations that has left 74 military and intelligence officers dead since the start of last year, according to Interior Ministry officials. Almost all of the killings have been carried out by masked gunmen on motorcycles — often with pistols equipped with silencers — and only a few suspects have been arrested.
Mr. Hadi’s supporters point out that he inherited a fearsome set of challenges. He took office a year ago under the terms of a phased transition plan brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a Saudi-led regional body, with the support of the United States and other Western powers. He was the consensus candidate inside Yemen largely because he lacked an independent power base and was therefore inoffensive to the tribal and military chiefs who wield real influence. His primary task was to undermine those chiefs, whose corrupt systems of patronage constitute one of the main obstacles to any real change.
Some analysts and diplomats give Mr. Hadi credit for a slow, steady effort to disarm his rivals. “He understood that the only way to undermine Saleh was by initially allying himself with Ali Muhsin,” the powerful general who defected to the opposition during the 2011 protests, said a European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, under diplomatic protocol.
Mr. Hadi has removed a number of military commanders loyal to the former president. In December, he announced a broad restructuring of the military that reassigned both Mr. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, and Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar — two of the most powerful military figures in Yemen. However, both men wield power mostly through networks of patronage and tribal influence. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Hadi, who lacks such networks, will follow through on his efforts to weaken them.
He must also contend with a southern independence movement that has grown so large over the past year that some Yemeni officials say they fear it will lead to war, if left unchecked. On Jan. 13, a rally in the southern coastal city of Aden drew tens of thousands of angry protesters. Although the movement’s leaders are divided, they all reject the Gulf Cooperation Council’s transition plan as a northern document, and almost all have refused to take part in the national dialogue.
Actual secession by the south — which was a separate country until 1990 — is unlikely in the absence of firmer leadership and foreign support. But the movement has grown more radical by the day, complicating efforts to restore governance.
In a paradox, Mr. Hadi is a southerner and was chosen in part on the premise that this would help him to placate the secessionists. Instead, he is widely hated in the south, in part because he is seen as a pillar of the northern political system after serving for 18 years as Mr. Saleh’s deputy.
“Hadi could still win back the south, or at least calm the situation there, if he made the right gestures,” said Abdel Ghani al-Iryani, an expert in Yemeni politics. “But he is not a bold political actor.”
Another rising threat is the growth of an increasingly violent and sectarian confrontation between two of Yemen’s largest political groups. One of those groups, known as the Houthi movement, is led by radical adherents of a variant of Shiite Islam and has been accused of receiving support from Iran. Its followers have clashed repeatedly with youths from Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party and the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This conflict has taken on aspects of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia — which supports Islah — and Iran, with troubling Sunni-Shiite overtones. The Houthis have grown increasingly strident, holding vast public rallies modeled after those of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement. The two groups regularly malign each other in sectarian terms — a new occurrence in Yemen — and on several occasions, rallies have devolved into rock-throwing and even gun battles between members of the two camps.
“Everybody is worried about this,” said Najib Ghalib, the chairman of the Jazeera Studies Center in Sanaa. “Hadi needs to cool things down, but he hasn’t.”
Instead, Mr. Hadi is said to be placing his energy and hopes in the national dialogue, an unwieldy political conference that was mandated in the transition plan.
The dialogue, which has been repeatedly delayed, will bring together 565 representatives of Yemen’s various political groups, in numerous subcommittees and plenary sessions over a six-month period. The idea, diplomats say, is to undertake a group process that will itself be therapeutic, even if the dialogue yields few consensual decisions about Yemen’s political future.
Skeptics abound, in part because some of the most intransigent political groups, like the Houthis and the southern separatists, refuse to participate.
Mr. Hadi, like his predecessor, appears to have paid little attention to the economy, despite some dire indicators. The deficit for the coming year is $3.17 billion out of a total budget of $12.6 billion. Half of that deficit remains unfinanced, and the government paid $2.8 billion in subsidies alone in 2012, mainly to offset the cost of fuel for Yemen’s desperately poor population. Last year, Saudi Arabia donated $2 billion in fuel products, and “that saved us,” said one senior Finance Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But can we count on that in the future?”
On a recent afternoon, a Yemeni political activist named Radhia al-Mutawakel watched as images of violent protesting in Egypt flared on a television screen.
“I envy the Egyptians,” Ms. Mutawakel said. “There, the independent activists at least have a voice. Here, we have none. There, they have a unified army. Here, everything is divided, and nothing has changed.”
February 19, 2013
Nepal Agreement May Break Deadlock Over Nation’s Leadership
By GARDINER HARRIS
NEW DELHI — Nepal’s major political parties have tentatively agreed to select the country’s Supreme Court justice as an interim prime minister so fresh elections can be held in June, potentially breaking a five-year deadlock that has left the nation with a hobbled government.
The agreement is expected to be formally signed early Tuesday evening. Chief Justice Khilaraj Regmi is expected to lead a technocratic cabinet that will seek to resolve the many issues that have stymied for years efforts to hold a follow-up set of elections to those held in 2008.
Devendra Poudel, adviser to the present prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, confirmed in a telephone interview that his Maoist party is ready to support Mr. Regmi’s elevation.
“We support the chief justice’s leadership of the elected government,” Mr. Poudel said.
Rajendra Dahal, a spokesman for President Ram Baran Yadav, said that the president is expected to approve the new agreement when it is presented to him Tuesday evening.
“Of course the president will be happy,” Mr. Dahal said. “The president’s single mission is to have elections. That is his priority, so any way the parties get some consensus in the goal of having elections, the president will support.”
Constitutional experts in Nepal have raised a host of concerns about the agreement, not the least of which is how Mr. Regmi will later be able to adjudicate challenges to an electoral process that he oversaw. His elevation also brings together two arms of the government that many see as vital to keep independent of one another.
Kanak Mani Dixit, a civil rights activist and commentator, said the selection of the chief justice may be the least worst option facing the country. But he is worried that the Maoists have supported the chief justice as an interim head of the government in hopes of discrediting the Supreme Court, which he said is the last civic institution in Nepal with any credibility.
“The Maoists agreed because they have already destroyed every other important institution of the state,” Mr. Dixit said. “The only one remaining to be compromised is the Supreme Court.”
Mr. Regmi is expected to be appointed to a three-month term as prime minister, following which he would return to the court. If Mr. Regmi is unable to oversee elections in that time, a new agreement would have to be reached.
Nepal’s transition to democracy has taken more than five years, paralyzed by ethnic, caste, religious, ideological and regional differences that permeate Nepalese society and have made even the most basic political agreements impossible.
The move toward a representative government began in 2008 with great promise after the election of the Constituent Assembly. But the assembly was unable to draw up a constitution or settle on the timing or method of holding further elections.
In recent years, Mr. Bhattarai, a Maoist, has led the government as prime minister. But he has rejected all proposals to replace him, and other political parties have refused to allow elections while Mr. Bhattarai runs the crucial levers of government, saying his oversight would make the elections unfair.
In the meantime, basic civil functions in Nepal have begun to fail one after the other, and its economy – never robust – has stalled. The result has been a diaspora of Nepalese to surrounding countries that has led to exasperation among Nepal’s neighbors -- particularly in India, where many of the immigrants settle.
February 18, 2013
For His Second Act, Japanese Premier Plays It Safe, With Early Results
By MARTIN FACKLER
TOKYO — Since taking office less than two months ago, Japan’s outspokenly hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been in what some political analysts are calling “safe driving mode.” He has carefully avoided saying or doing anything to provoke other Asian nations, while focusing instead on wooing voters with steps to revive the moribund domestic economy.
So far, his approach seems to be working. His plans for public-works projects, stimulus measures called “Abenomics,” have sent the Tokyo stock market surging along with Mr. Abe’s own approval rating, which is now at 71 percent, according to the latest poll by Yomiuri Shimbum. On Friday, he will seek to build on his strong start when he meets President Obama at a Washington summit meeting aimed at improving relations with the United States, which regards Japan as its most important ally in Asia.
Mr. Abe, 58, has said he wants to be what Japan has not seen in almost a decade: a steady-handed leader who lasts long enough in office to actually get things done. Analysts say his success hinges on whether he can lead his Liberal Democratic Party to victory in Upper House elections in July, and end the split Parliament that undermined many of his predecessors.
What is less clear is what he will do if he wins that election. One trait that makes Mr. Abe a bit of an enigma, some analysts say, is that he seems to have two sides: the realist and the right-wing ideologue. In analysts’ view, if he does jettison some of his current caution, for instance by trying to revise Japan’s antiwar Constitution to allow a full-fledged military instead of its current Self-Defense Force, he risks provoking a standoff with China over disputed islands, and possibly isolating Japan in a region still sensitive to its early-20th-century militarism.
“In his first six weeks, he has done everything he can to show he is a moderate,” said Andrew L. Oros, director of international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. “But after July, he might feel he has a freer rein to do things that he thinks are justified.”
Part of the problem, Mr. Oros and others say, is that Mr. Abe faces conflicting political pressures. His base in the governing party’s most conservative wing expects bold steps to end what it sees as Japan’s overly prolonged displays of contrition for World War II. But he must also convince the broader public that he is a coolheaded, competent steward of a declining nation that also depends on China for its economic future.
There is also the ghost of his past failure. The last time he was prime minister, six years ago, he stepped down amid criticism that he had been “clueless” for having pursued a nationalistic agenda of revising the Constitution and history textbooks, and for not doing more to reduce unemployment and spur the economy.
This time, Mr. Abe is acting with the determined carefulness of a man given a second chance. He has focused on extricating Japan from its recession with steps that have quickly buoyed the country’s economy, the world’s third-largest. Since being named prime minister after his party’s election victory in December, Mr. Abe has promised $215 billion in public works spending to create jobs and promote growth.
He has also publicly pressured the central bank, the Bank of Japan, to move more aggressively to end years of corrosive price declines known as deflation — threatening, for example, to amend the law on the bank’s independence if it does not reach its target of 2 percent inflation. The bank’s governor, Masaaki Shirakawa, announced this month that he would step aside to allow Mr. Abe to appoint a new chief who will work more closely with the government by pumping more money into the economy to prompt banks to lend more and companies to spend more.
“Mr. Abe has clearly learned the lessons of his past failure,” said Norihiko Narita, a political scientist at Surugadai University, near Tokyo. “And the biggest lesson is that voters care more about the economy.”
Abenomics has already affected the yen, helping to drive down its value by 20 percent in just four months. This has strengthened Japan’s struggling export industries by making their products cheaper abroad, but also led to warnings of a trade war in which other nations push down the values of their currencies.
However, the biggest criticism of Abenomics is that it will provide only a short-lived adrenaline shot for growth, while producing little more than superfluous bridges and roads, and adding to Japan’s already stifling national debt. Economists say Mr. Abe’s policies so far contain few of the deeper-reaching structural reforms that they say are needed to produce sustainable growth by encouraging competition in Japan’s sclerotic economy.
They say the most symbolic step would be joining a Pacific-wide free trade pact that would force Japan to open sheltered domestic markets, like farm products. Mr. Abe appears to personally favor entering the pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the United States champions as a way of binding the economically vibrant region together. Japanese and American officials say Mr. Abe may even privately promise Mr. Obama that Japan will soon join the pact. But he cannot afford to say so in public for fear of alienating the farmers who have been strong supporters of the Liberal Democrats — at least not until the July elections.
Similarly, fears of angering voters on Okinawa will also likely prevent Mr. Abe from offering progress on another issue that has long caused problems with the United States, the relocation of the unpopular American air base at Futenma. This has led some analysts to wonder what Mr. Abe’s visit to Washington will actually be able to produce.
Plans for the summit meeting seemed to get off to a rocky start last month when the administration declined a Japanese request for a visit in January, saying the American side was not ready. This was reported as a snub in Japan’s tabloid press. Perhaps to make amends, the Americans have increased the time that Mr. Abe will spend with Mr. Obama, adding a luncheon at the White House to the schedule.
For Mr. Abe, strengthening ties with the United States is crucial as Japan faces a growing challenge from China for control of the disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Analysts say Mr. Abe will probably tell Mr. Obama that he wants Japan to act as a fuller military partner with the United States, at a time when the Pentagon faces steep budget cuts. But it is unclear if more radical steps, like rewriting the Constitution, would sit well with the majority of Japanese voters who wish Mr. Abe to remain moderate.
“Mr. Abe is to the right of the mainstream,” said Koji Nakakita, a politics professor at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, “and that carries a huge potential risk for him.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 19, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the details of a possible January meeting between the leaders of Japan and the United States.
February 19, 2013
Incumbent Wins Easy Victory in Armenia
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia easily won re-election to a second five-year term, according to preliminary returns released on Tuesday by the Central Election Commission.
The preliminary results showed Mr. Sargsyan with about 59 percent of the vote, enough to win the presidency outright and avoid a runoff. The former foreign minister, Raffi Hovanessian, was a distant second with about 37 percent, the returns showed.
Armenians went to the polls on Monday with Mr. Sargsyan heavily favored to win and maintain stability in a country that has become an increasingly important, if uneasy, United States ally in monitoring Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
A veteran politician, Mr. Sargsyan, 58, is generally viewed as having presided over modest economic improvements in recent years, even as the country has struggled because of closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, its enemy in a continuing war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
But while Mr. Sargsyan’s victory has been predicted for months, there have been some unexpected developments in the campaign. One challenger, Andreas Ghukasian, a political commentator who manages a radio station in the capital, Yerevan, has been on a hunger strike, demanding that the incumbent be removed from the ballot.
Another challenger, Paruir A. Airikyan, was shot in the shoulder in late January in what the authorities described as an assassination attempt, although there was no known motive. He is a former Soviet dissident who promoted Armenian independence and has run unsuccessfully for president several times.
Mr. Airikyan briefly considered invoking a constitutional provision to delay the election for two weeks as a result of his injury, but he ultimately decided to allow the balloting to proceed.
Mr. Sargsyan’s second term will be watched closely for any sign of progress in resolving the war with Azerbaijan and for any indication that Armenia would reduce support for economic sanctions against Iran, as they make life more difficult in both countries.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh continues at a low simmer with periodic violence along the line of contact, including frequent exchanges of gunfire and occasional casualties. Peace talks led by the so-called Minsk Group, which is led by the United States, Russia and France, have mostly stalled.
Armenia has traditionally relied heavily on Iran as an economic partner, but those ties are now constrained by the sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran insists its purposes are peaceful, but Western powers accuse Tehran of seeking the technology to build nuclear weapons and have imposed a broadening array of United States, United Nations and European Union sanctions.
Armenia has supported the measures, while continuing to engage in some trade that circumvents them, like swapping its electricity for natural gas from Iran with no money changing hands.
“Having Iran as your economic lifeline is not a good position to be in,” said one senior Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified to avoid creating any tension with players in the region.
“They have been very, very careful, very, very good, at some cost to Armenia, to honor international U.N., U.S. and E.U. sanctions against Iran,” the diplomat said. “But it’s increasingly difficult for them to do that.”
International election observers have fanned out across Armenia in recent days. Initial reports suggested that Mr. Sargsyan’s party had made some inappropriate use of government resources to promote his candidacy, a common criticism of incumbent candidates in former Soviet republics. But observers say the overall political climate has improved, with opposition candidates, for instance, enjoying better access to coverage by the news media.
Still, Armenia faces a peculiar problem when it comes to potential election fraud because of the hundreds of thousands of Armenian citizens who live abroad, including in the United States — one of the largest percentage diasporas in the world given Armenia’s population of 3.1 million, according to the World Bank.
With few exceptions, absentee balloting is not permitted. That means the Armenian election rolls are filled with the names of people who will not appear in person to vote, creating the potential for fraudulent use of those names.
Mr. Sargsyan faced relatively weak competition after his two strongest potential challengers and their parties announced last year that they would not compete — former President Levon Ter-Petrossian of the Armenian National Congress and Gagik Tsarukyan of the Prosperous Armenia Party. Mr. Tsarukyan is a wealthy businessman, lawmaker and the head of Armenia’s national Olympic committee.
Mr. Sargsyan and his wife, Rita, paused Monday to speak with reporters after voting in Yerevan. “I have voted for the security of our citizens and our families,” he said, according to aysor.am, an Armenian news site.
Estonia: Free travel is no paradise
19 February 2013
On January 1, some residents of Tallinn saw one of their dreams come true, when they were granted the right to use public transport for free. However, not everyone is happy with the measure. For some, it appears to be a rushed move designed to win favour with voters ahead of autumn local elections.
Whenever they get a chance, Lithuanians like to say, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. However, the residents of Tallinn, who have been enjoying free public transport since January 1, now set more store by the American adage: “There's no such thing as a free lunch”.
Thea, a service sector worker, is delighted to be saving around €20 per month, which is the average cost of a monthly travel pass for a Tallinn resident. Having said that, she immediately adds that the new system also has its disadvantages. “The number of homeless people and drunks using public transport has increased. Before, they only took buses from the notorious Kopli neighbourhood, but today they are everywhere. Worse still, the buses are often jammed, and you have to wait for another one with a bit more room,” says the 22-year-old Estonian.
“People now have to pay for public car parks, which used to be free, and the most expensive parking zones have been extended. Some might say that these changes amount to sustainable development, but people have the impression that the city council has upped the rates, because it needs money to pay for the free public transport,” explains Andres Kasekamp, a professor at the University of Tartu.
Tracking travel patterns
To use public transport, locals in Tallinn have to be registered as residents of the city, and whenever they travel they have to carry proof of identity as well as a traveller’s green card, which costs €2 for four years.
As Tallinn’s deputy mayor Taavi Aas, a member of the Centre Party [the most popular party in the country’s Russian community], points out, travellers still have to swipe their green cards when using the transport network so that experts can analyse the flow of passengers.
Many Tallinn residents were astonished at the rapidity with which the totally free transport system was implemented.
But does the measure have anything to do with local elections due in the autumn, or predictions that the vote will be won by the Centre Party?
Although Tallinn is supposed to be on its way to becoming a green city, Andra Weideman is convinced that the only buses in circulation are older models, which create a great deal of pollution.
Cart before the horse
“They announced that from January 1, all Tallinn residents would benefit from free transport. We asked what would be the consequences for drivers who used their cars everyday. They told us we would have to wait for that information, which would become available in time. But we have not heard anything since.
When they introduced free transport, they put the cart before the horse, argues I. Skudraite. For the architect and urban planner, the measure was akin to installing windows in a house whose foundations have not yet been completed.
“As a general rule, free transport is clearly a good thing, but certain essential intermediate measures have been ignored. In winter, it is very difficult to use the pavements in Tallinn, which are not cleared. A lot of the transport system is obsolete. For example, the trams are old and inaccessible to wheelchair users or even people with pushchairs. The port, which is the heart of Tallinn, is not linked to any many road out of the city, and is only accessible through a network of narrow streets. Money has been pumped in so that people can move around more, but are they really doing that?” he wonders.
View from Poland: The Baltic Tiger is back
Two decades after regaining its independence, Estonia has secured a stable position in the globalised world, energy sovereignty, and free bus tickets, enthuses the weekly Uważam Rze in Warsaw. It then rolls off a long list of the small Baltic country's achievements –
The unemployment rate is below 10 per cent and the average wage is €839. [...] The country showcases itself as digitally advanced and citizen-friendly. [...] Estonians are seldom ever offline. More than 1,100 free hot spots operate throughout the country. You can use the Internet to vote and pay taxes, and starting a business online takes just 18 minutes.
Cyprus: At the bottom of the sea
18 February 2013
Sailing through the first round of the presidential elections on February 17, Conservative Nikos Anastasiadis is well placed to take over from Communist Dimitri Christofias. His main aim? To negotiate a tricky rescue plan to avoid the island being dragged down by the collapse of its banks.
José de Areilza Carvajal
As with Greece, to which it bears some resemblance, the bailout being drawn up for this small European territory would not be news if it were not for the resistance of Germany and the other creditor countries](3390701) of the eurozone.
Plenty of voices in those parliaments are demanding that Cyprus be left to sink and that it later be wiped off the map of the single currency. They are the same voices that are questioning the EU aid to Spanish banks and that are shocked by the lukewarm official reaction to cases of corruption in political parties and public administration in Spain.
Above all, if Cyprus is going to collapse, savers in northern Europe do not want their money used to backstop the huge deposits of wealthy Russians](1474111), who make the most of the island's financial advantages – and its balmy winter sunshine. Critics of this mini-rescue recall, and indeed rightly, that the island should never have been admitted to the Union without having first resolved its partition into two halves.
Today, though, European aid has become inevitable. Both the Cypriot government and its banks are up to their eyeballs in Greek debt that they bought up in a mad rush. The election earlier this year of a new governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus named Panicos puts a surreal touch on events.
The European Central Bank wants no experiments, even minor ones, that could shatter the fragile confidence in the eurozone. And so Mario Draghi has, for now, persuaded European governments to restructure the island's debts following the Greek model, without harming individuals who have deposits in the country, to stem capital flight on a massive scale.
Russia, in the background to this little drama, will provide financial support to this operation; not for nothing has it been helping out its pet island in the Mediterranean since 2011. That we can count on.
View from Nicosia: Spotlight turns from division to bankruptcy
"For the first time in the recent history of the country, the campaign has not been marked by the issue of the divided island but by the risk of bankruptcy, writes O Philelefteros following the first round of the presidential elections on February 17. Around a third of the country has been occupied by the Turkish army since 1974, and no president has yet come up with a workable solution.
Thus, notes Politis,
Regardless of who wins, the new Cypriot president will be forced to place the country under the budgetary supervision of the European Union and the IMF, just like Greece, to get a loan of €17bn and stave off bankruptcy.
02/19/2013 12:49 PM
Poverty Migration: Berlin Urges Bulgaria, Romania to Integrate Roma
With the tide of Bulgarians and Romanians flooding Germany showing no signs of abating, officials in Berlin have called on the two countries to stem the exodus by boosting efforts to integrate Roma into their own societies. Poverty migration, they argue, must be combatted at the source.
A major surge of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania to Germany since the countries joined the European Union in 2007 and began to benefit from free movement within the bloc is creating what many are calling a serious integration problem. Statistics show that some 147,000 Bulgarian and Romanian nationals moved to Germany in 2011 alone.
Although there are no official figures, a considerable share of immigrants from the countries are believed to be members of the Roma minority, who often lack education, frequently suffer from health problems and are therefore far less likely to find employment. Their numbers are set to rise even further when labor market restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants are lifted in 2014, after the seven-year transition period since the two countries joined runs out.
On Monday, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he wanted to reinforce efforts to combat poverty-related immigration. Friedrich is urging the Bulgarian and Romanian governments to take measures domestically to stem the dramatic exodus, which is a phenomenon affecting many parts of Europe.
"This problem needs to be tackled at its source," Friedrich said on Monday. "That's why Germany is advising Bulgaria and Romania on both a European level and in its bilateral relations with the two countries to invest more of its EU subsidies in the integration of those affected in their home countries."
Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, meanwhile, echoed Friedrich's statements. "Many Roma flee their homes because of discrimination and resulting poverty," she told the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "Poverty-related migration must be addressed at its roots."
A 'Predictable' Problem
The latest statements follow a position paper released in late January by the German Association of Cities identifying escalating problems with impoverished immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria. The Federat Statistical Office registered a 24 percent increase in migrants from the countries during the first half of 2012. And the number has more than doubled since 2007.
With many seeking social welfare support, authorities in Germany's biggest cities are complaining of spiraling costs as well as a rise in begging, prostitution and illegal labor. Against this backdrop, the association, which represents the interests of Germany's municipalities, called on the federal government in Berlin and the European Union in Brussels to place more emphasis on the issue and push for the improvement of conditions in the immigrants' home countries. The paper states that the outcome of EU expansion to include Romania and Bulgaria had been "predictable."
"The current migration of people from Romania and Bulgaria is a problem that can only be coped with through a coordinated cooperation of the relevant players at the federal government, country and European level." The municipalities argue it is not a question of "walling off Germany from immigration," but about "creating successful conditions for integration."
With the paper, the cities said they wanted to launch a debate on how best to deal with the issue. "We do not want to make blanket generalizations about EU citizens from Romania nor Bulgaria and we cannot accept that these local problems become serve to promote right-wing extremist thinking."
In 2011, in the neighboring Czech Republic, right-wing extremists attacked Roma in a border area near Germany. Similar attacks have been widely reported in Hungary.
02/19/2013 12:21 PM
Looming Elections: Berlin Warns Italians against Berlusconi
Top politicians tend to remain silent on elections being held abroad. But German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle this week has issued a barely concealed warning to Italians against voting for Silvio Berlusconi. And he isn't the only one in Berlin who is nervous about a possible return of "Il Cavaliere."
It was German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble who allegedly fired the first shot. In an interview with the Italian newsmagazine l'Espresso late last week, Schäuble warned Italians against voting for Silvio Berlusconi in general elections scheduled for Feb. 24 and 25. "Silvio Berlusconi may be an effective campaign strategist," the magazine quotes Schäuble as saying. "But my advice to the Italians is not to make the same mistake again by re-electing him."
A Finance Ministry spokesman was quick to deny that Schäuble had said such a thing. But this week, given Berlusconi's seemingly inexorable climb toward the top of Italian public opinion polls, two more top German politicians have warned against re-electing a man who many see as being partially responsible for the economic troubles facing the country.
"We are of course not a party in the Italian campaign," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung in comments printed on Tuesday. "But whoever ends up forming the next government, we are emphatic that (Rome's) pro-European path and necessary reforms are continued."
Given Berlusconi's fiscally irresponsible campaign promises combined with his anti-European rhetoric, it isn't difficult to guess who Westerwelle's verbal darts were aimed at. But just to be sure the message was clear, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in German parliament, Ruprecht Polenz, also spoke up. Polenz, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, said: "Italy needs political leaders who stand for the future. Berlusconi is certainly not one of them."
The anxiety apparent in the comments is the result of Berlusconi's astounding rise from political afterthought last autumn to a genuine threat to win a fourth term as Italian prime minister. The last pre-election polls, which are published two weeks before Italians cast their ballots, showed Berlusconi's coalition to be just five percentage points behind the center-left bloc led by Pier Luigi Bersani.
A Berlusconi victory, many fear, could result in an immediate rise in Italian borrowing costs and a return to the critical situation in which Rome found itself in late 2011, when Berlusconi was essentially forced to step down in favor of the technocratic government led by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti. Indeed, markets have been showing unmistakable jitters as the vote approaches.
One Italian bank even went so far this week as to issue a report arguing that a Berlusconi election would almost certainly force the country to apply for emergency bailout aid from the EU. Mediobanca, Italy's largest investment bank, wrote that "a last-minute Berlusconi victory would scare the market sufficiently to put pressure on the spread." Ironically, given Italy's current sovereign debt load, the bank sees such an eventuality as "the best case" because it would "offer Italy the perfect excuse for what we keep seeing as the only viable way out."
'East German Bureaucrat'
That, not surprisingly, is an experiment that Berlin would prefer to avoid. Unnamed Foreign Ministry sources told the Süddeutsche that Westerwelle is following the Italian campaign closely and sees the country as a "key to surmounting the European debt crisis."
Polenz, for his part, sees Berlusconi as lacking the necessary trustworthiness. "It has to do with confidence and credibility," he said. "The ongoing court proceedings directed against Berlusconi have a negative effect on his political credibility."
And Chancellor Merkel? She has so far remained silent on the Italian campaign. But her antipathy for Berlusconi is not something she goes out of her way to hide. In a much cited press conference with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the fall of 2011, she merely chuckled when asked about Berlusconi's willingness to push through reforms.
His recent campaign will not have changed her mind. "Il Cavaliere," as Berlusconi is known, has made attacks on Merkel a central feature of his campaign and he has sought to paint Monti as being a pawn of Berlin. Just this week, Berlusconi called Merkel an "Eastern bureaucrat," a reference to her having grown up in communist East Germany. That, of course, can be regarded as a compliment in comparison with some of the things he has said about the German leader in the past.
Italy: Beppe Grillo: The Europhobe comet
18 February 2013
Just a few days ahead of the February 24 and 25 elections, the Italian media are ignoring the success of the former comic and self-declared populist. However, according to the polls, Grillo and Berlusconi could give rise to an unprecedented coalition of anti-Europeans.
Interviewed a few days ago on a popular TV show, outgoing prime minister Mario Monti admitted he did not know how to use Twitter, or what Fifty Shades of Grey referred to, while carefully avoiding talk of civil partnerships, and passing quickly over the San Remo Song Festival.
At the same time, the former comedian and founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S) Beppe Grillo was haranguing a crowd in Marghera near Venice. In the crowd were ordinary people, embodying the problems and anxieties of everyday life: work, childcare, motherhood, the difficulties SME owners face. Wrapped up in hats and coats, they stood there in the cold, in great numbers, from the afternoon into the evening, listening to Grillo and others who came out onto the platform.
And yet the next day neither La Repubblica nor Corriere della Sera devoted a single line to Beppe Grillo. As if he does not exist. But they'll get a rude awakening. [Since then, the two most widely read newspapers in Italy have devoted several articles to the candidate's breakthrough in the polls.]
Something is going on in Italy. Is this movement good or bad? Of course, we can discuss that. But either way it is a major phenomenon. The Five Star Movement is standing at 17 per cent in the polls, a figure that very few parties in Italy have been able to get past.
“We will open up Parliament like a can of tuna,” Grillo declares. And the crowd goes wild. “The era of representation is finished. We no longer believe in it. We will break the bank. And if not today, then a year from now. It's just a matter of time. And really, we may just get there today.” Beppe Grillo never stops. “Populists? Yes, we are populist – and let them hear it!” And the crowd chants aloud: “Po-pu-li-sti!”
Treated like a little dictator
The "Tsunami Tour", as he has named it, recalls old-fashioned politics, but also the kind adopted by a certain Barack Obama – who knows how to use Twitter (and how!). And who certainly knows about the existence of Fifty Shades of Grey, if he has not already read it. Because it is obvious that as long as you do not come down to the street, you do not exist, and you have no credibility.
During his meetings, Beppe Grillo often mentions the foreign television crews that have come to follow his campaign. From all around the world, from Denmark to Canada. Journalism, after all, is not limited to analysis and interpretation; it is also a story, a narrative. If a foreigner were to flip open La Repubblica or the Corriere della Sera, he would learn nothing of what has happened during this election campaign. He would be unable to get any idea of the state of mind of the Italians and of the two questions that worry the country: who will vote for the Five Star Movement, and who shudders at the mere thought of it?
The media who think of themselves as the benchmark treat Beppe Grillo like a little dictator. The Five Star Movement only makes the news when someone in it rebels against its leader, or when there is something to spill about the “guru” Gianroberto Casaleggio, co-founder of the movement with Beppe Grillo. As if all those people, all those Italians who braved the cold to gather in the street on a weekday, were lobotomised second-class citizens. One may wonder how a comedian is proving so successful. To write about it may even be a duty. In any case, the movement cannot be ignored.
A place in government?
For the rest, it's enough to look at the polls. Published on February 6, the latest survey of voter intentions for the senatorial elections from [pollster] SWG (Studi e Proiezioni Elettorali) gives the centre-left coalition 34.4 per cent (the Democratic Party 29.6 per cent), and the Monti coalition 11.5 per cent. On polling day, it may happen that Monti and his allies fail to get past 10 per cent. That would mean the centre-left and Monti together would fall short of 45 per cent threshold.
The same number can be arrived at by adding the 28.7 per cent of the centre-right (the People of Freedom is at 19 per cent) and the 17.5 per cent of Beppe Grillo (18 per cent for the Chamber of Deputies). If we look just at the numbers, the Berlusconi-Grillo tandem (46.2 per cent), as hypothetical and unimaginable as it may be, is rallying more votes across the country today than the Bersani-Monti duo (45.8 per cent). And yet the newspapers are talking only about the latter.
To state things clearly, in the very unlikely event that Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi were to forge an alliance, it would be difficult for the head of state not to ask one of the two men to form the government.
An Italy split in half
Worrying figures? Fantasy scenarios? Yet these are real numbers. And more than numbers, they represent minds, hearts, people, and families. There are two Italies. One that we could briefly be described as European – responsible, credible, but given to procrastinating and getting lost in squabbles and unnecessary debate. And one that is difficult to identify. Because Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi are not alike, even if they do have some things in common.
Italians who will vote for Bersani or Monti are as numerous as those who will vote for Beppe Grillo or Berlusconi. And the elections are only 17 days off! This is the reality. Let us act. Something is going on in Italy. Something strong. Something intense. And that has nothing to do with the little dog of Mario Monti. Notify the Twitter stars. And perhaps even the political leaders, can yet turn things around.
Beppe Grillo, as the Devil, among a host of caricatured Italian political leaders during last week’s Viareggio Carnival parade in Tuscany
Italian life: Tangentopoli Back, Claims Monti
Corriere della Sera.It
Feb 19, 2013
Tangentopoli Back, Claims Monti
PM “inherited government from scoundrels”. Bribes “not unavoidable”. Outgoing prime minister reveals offer of presidency of Italy not to stand
“Sadly, yes”. The prime minister, Mario Monti, was replying to a question on RaiTre’s Agorà programme about whether the recent arrests meant a return to Tangentopoli days. Mr Monti pointed out that “the evidence is very similar but there is less hope. In 1992-93, there was the perception of a liberating action. People thought that the magistracy’s operations and ordinary people’s conscience would put an end to the phenomenon. Instead, the magistrates went ahead while the consciences of Italians, politicians in particular, lagged very much behind and here we are again”.
BERLUSCONI – The Civic Choice (SC) list leader continued: “After all these years of Berlusconi government, there is no anti-corruption law”. “Italy”, he went on, “is a major country, a G8 country, and can of course become a laughing stock, as has happened because of the laughable attitude of a certain person in the past”. Mr Monti pointed out how his government “struggled, because of People of Freedom (PDL) resistance, to get a decent anti-corruption bill through Parliament”. The measure was put in place when “after so many years of Berlusconi government” none had yet been passed. Domestic regulations, Mr Monti explained, should go hand in hand with international action. “Anyone who has governed for as many years as Berlusconi ought to have done something at international level. Italy is a major country, it’s in G8, and can of course become a laughing stock, as has happened because of the laughable attitude of a certain person in the past”. Mr Monti was asked who he was referring to: “I have no need to recall the pressures experienced in the past few days”.
BRIBES – On Thursday, Silvio Berlsuconi justified “commissions” in negotiations with “third-world countries”, a reference to the Finmeccanica case. Mr Monti said in reply: “It is a fact that bribes are often part and parcel of business, particularly in some countries, but that they should be looked on as necessary and unavoidable is something I reject”. Mr Monti then pointed out that “there was no anti-corruption law after so many years of Berlusconi government and we are not talking about the Third World”. He added: “Our business giants may behave according to the standards of the countries in which they operate, partly in the interest of the Italian economy, but if possible while avoiding certain concomitant phenomena such as bribes to Italian parties or to those who put them in those positions. This flow is not established practice and if there had been a serious anti-corruption law in Italy, it would have been more difficult”. The prime minister then went on the attack: “If the Centre-right were to win, Italy would be at risk again as it was in November 2011 and the reforms necessary to the country’s growth would grind to a halt. If the Democratic Party (PD) and Vendola were to win, the public accounts would be safer but there would be no progress on structural reform”.
ALLIANCE – On the subject of possible alliances, Mr Monti said: “We have had no talks with Right or Left for the time being. We are moving forward with our own proposals. Then we’ll see. With Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) and the PD, there are fewer risks of financial flare-ups but there is resistance on public spending cuts. To present a common front with the Centre-left”, work needs to be done towards “a more open labour market”. “But an alliance with the Centre-left is no more likely than one with the Centre-right minus Berlusconi”, Mr Monti added. What about an alliance with [PD leader Pier Luigi – Trans.] Bersani? “That depends on policies”.
SCOUNDRELS – Finally, the PM had words of rapprochement and reproof for the PDL: “If Silvio Berlusconi is ready to stand aside for Angelino Alfano, then redemption is a possibility for anyone”. Referring to the eventuality of a Centre-right win, he added: “If there were so much as the hint of an attempt to honour any of the pledges made, I foresee grave problems with interest rates and little further space for growth-oriented reforms”. But Mr Monti also indulged in some recrimination of his own: “I am much more hurt when a bunch of scoundrels say they left Italy in good shape in 2011, and claim that I took it to the edge of the abyss, than I am proud when I receive praise from Obama”.
OFFER OF PRESIDENCY – Mr Monti was then asked: “If there is a Bersani government, will you join the executive?” “That depends on whether the programme contains the reforms we want and for which I took the foolish step of turning down positions that were proposed to me”. Such as the presidency of Italy? “And not just that. Because I am committed to these reforms”. The interviewer probed to find out what other offers had been made apart from the presidency. Mr Monti said it was not a “cumulative package” but “top-level or near top-level positions in government”. These, however, were “conversations”. On condition that he chose a coalition other than his own in advance? “Not with certainty but it was a possibility”, Mr Monti replied. When asked whether Mr Bersani had demanded this, the outgoing PM replied: “Conversations have their private zones”.